“The Outsider in Korean Politics” Asia Institute Seminar with Gregg Brazinsky

Asia Institute Seminar

Asia Institute Seminar
Gregg A. Brazinsky
Associate Professor of History and International Affairs
George Washington University

The Outsider in Korean Politics

August 11, 2012

 

Emanuel Pastreich:
So one immediate question that comes to mind is whether President Roh Muhyun should be regarded as an outsider. Certainly he had all sorts of conflicts with his own party. But was he really an outsider, and was that outsider quality important for his election to the presidency?
Was there something naïve or outsider-like about Roh that allowed him to be elected?
Gregg Brazinsky:
I see Roh less as an outsider, and more in terms of the generational shift in Korean politics that brought him to power. Roh was the first person who embodied the perspective of the 386 generation—perhaps outside of the establishment that had ruled Korea previously, but not an outsider. His election embodied that generation. Above all, Roh represented a shift away from the standard politics of the Three Kims, the domination of the old political backroom system that limited participation. Roh may have appeared as an outsider, but in fact he rose up under the political tutelage of Kim Daejung, he went up the ladder over time in the national assembly. Although did not go to college, much of his behavior fit in well with the habits of a liberal politician.

Roh’s presidency was not so successful. The Sunshine Policy did not realize its potential and its results were ambiguous. There was great hope that Roh would follow the tradition of protest and bring great change to Korea. In some respects, civilian rule strengthened and democratic process became more robust under his leadership. But Roh did not bring about the fundamental changes that supporters had hoped for.
There remained a level of corruption and the abuse of personal connections in Korean politics that could not be changed so easily. The result was more disillusionment with the left. The current desire for a true outsider is in some ways tied to the failure of Roh’s administration.

Emanuel Pastreich:
Was Roh’s rise unique in Asia?

Gregg Brazinsky:

There is a parallel between what happened in Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan in terms of the downfall of authoritarian one-party developmental states that found their legitimacy in the rapid economic growth they offered. In each of those countries in the 1980s and 1990s there was a great political coming of age. All three counties displayed a pent up need for democracy, needs that could not be met by the developmental system of the 1970s and 1980s in which citizens had no opportunities for expression or policy input. Roh was deeply involved in that political coming of age in Korea. That was a political and intellectual movement throughout Asia that led to the downfall of Marcos, the growth of a democratic system in Taiwan and advocacy for democratic policy by Kim Yongsan, Kim Daejung and Roh Moo Hyun.

Emanuel Pastreich:
I understand that Roh was not an absolute outsider, but he did lack the extensive patronage network among bureaucrats and leaders in industry. He did not really have someone like Han Dok-soo or Han Seung-ju to guide him along and make deals with powerful ministry leaders. As a result, he became unnecessarily isolated.
Gregg Brazinsky:

There was a lack of training in diplomacy and foreign policy among those that Roh chose to surround himself. Perhaps that failure was reflection of his lack of experience in foreign policy, but at the same time, he was facing a tremendous challenge in the period after 9/11 when George W. Bush declared that North Korea was part of the “Axis of Evil.” That shift in American policy created enormous pressure.

In addition, Roh came to power in part because of an emotional response to incidents in Korea involving the U.S. military. Part of the support for the administration, whether they wanted or not, came from an anti-American mood in Korea. He made some mistakes in terms of going along with that anti-American sentiment in Korea. He played to that audience too often in his speeches. I found in my own career that the period of 2002-2003 was the most difficult. I spent a lot of time in Korea from the 1990s as a graduate student and professor in Korea. But its was only then that I encountered any sort of personal antagonism toward me as an American. People were still kind to me, but the questions they asked me in taxi cabs were a little more harsh and confrontational than usual. I think that Roh played along with, and fostered that anti-American mood in Korea and that was very damaging to him internationally.

Emanuel Pastreich:
I remember his unique “Balancer “argument from that time. It struck me as the naïve work of an outsider. Of course in the long term, Korea has to imagine itself as engaging in a complex balancing act between China, Japan and the United States. But to write that as a document for public consumption seems the height of the naïve. What better way to assure that Korea cannot pursue such a stategy?

Gregg Brazinsky:
I think that balancer argument was part of a movement towards embracing China as a potential big brother at the time time, a major power that could one day replace the US in the region region. This was a naïve assumption. Over time, Koreans became increasingly disillusioned with China because it turned out that China is not better than the US. China is a rising superpower with its own interests; The US is an established superpower with its own interests. As Koreans witnessed China’s behavior towards its neighbors, its approach to territorial issues, they became more wary of China as partner. When Koreans saw China’s strategic ambitions, they grew less enthusiastic about replacing US with China.
At the same time, the US made that situation a bit worse by being so openly critical of Roh and the Bush administration so openly hostile to an ally. I would have been better to just let our ideals and our tradition speak for themselves. We do not have to complain in a way that antagonizes if an ally chooses a different approach.
Emanuel Pastreich:
How about mayor Park Wan Soon? Does he count as an outsider? What was his appeal?

Gregg Brazinsky:

So Park Wan Soon is a bit harder to characterize and I do not want to say too much about someone I do not know as well, but what I have heard and observed that his rise was very much tied to Ahn Chul-Soo’s endorsement. He was part of a larger movement. That said, he was clearly an independent candidate without the institutional support of the two existing parties.

Emanuel Pastreich:
Park was not a party member. We can contrast him with Roh Moo Hyun, Roh was clearly a member of the democratic party and had established his credentials within the party before the election.

Gregg Brazinsky:
Park has the support of some in the party, but ultimately his election was not party related and the election shook up Korean politics a bit. There was clearly an enthusiasm for Park as an outside candidate that stemmed from a frustration and disgust with politics as usual. This was a shock to many in the party system who were used to running things the old way.

Emanuel Pastreich:

In the United States, Park could not be elected. It is not possible to come out of nowhere in the American system. In the US you cannot just walk in at the last moment in the party system and become the candidate for your party. In fact it was possible before, but now the delegates to the convention are locked into place and also so much of the election is based on massive advertising which third-party candidates cannot do easily. There really are not opportunities to for an independent candidate to emerge. We see the Democratic Party putting as much effort and money into stopping 3 party candidates from running as into fighting republicans. In some cases, democrats are more interested in stopping 3rd parties than stopping Republicans.

Gregg Brazinsky:
It is true that the US is less friendly environment for 3rd party candidates. But although the US does gravitate towards establishment candidates, there remains the potential for surprises in the US. Hillary Clinton was certainly the establishment candidate for Democratic party candidate for president, but she was defeated by Obama. But in the US it would be difficult to be elected as an independent. Recently “Tea Party” candidates have also challenged and defeated Republican establishment candidates.

That said, it is not impossible. We have the example of Ross Perot who did make some real progress along that line. We have true independents. Jesse Ventura, professional wrestler and conspiracy theorist was elected governor of Minnesota. It is possible, under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, not many independents get elected to really central positions as Park Wonsoon did when he was elected mayor of Seoul, which can be a launch platform for presidential bids.

Emanuel Pastreich:
So what about someone like Ron Paul who might run for president this time as an independent. He has a very unusual combination of strengths and appeals to both conservatives and liberals. he could run as an independent, but I doubt he can be taken as a serious candidate.

Gregg Brazinsky:
In the US there are some clear structural barriers to suddenly making oneself felt in party politics. Especially for third party candidates. There is a need for a lot of money, now up to a billion dollars per candidate, to cover TV advertising and the campaign as a whole. That is a high bar in politics and it keeps out third party candidates, or even outsiders within the party. In the electoral college system in the United States there must be one candidate who has a majority. So there is always a concern that a third party candidate will throw the system into chaos.
So if you did not have any background in politics it would be difficult to get that far in the US.
In the case of Park Wan Soon’s election as mayor, obviously Ahn Cholsoo played a big role, but more importantly, there is now a very low level of confidence in political parties in Korea, perhaps a historic low. In the US as well there is now a very low level of trust in the parties, but the US lack of faith in existing parties has not translated into support for an independent candidate, at least when it comes to the current presidential election.

That said, I think the time is right for an outsider in the US. Someone like Mike Bloomberg, billionaire and effective mayor of New York City, could attract a significant following in the US if he ran as an independent. He would attract voters who are fed up with Republicans and Democrats and wanted a common sense policy, a real change. Bloomberg is in a position to run for president and he has the independence and the funding to do so effectively. I also think someone like Bill Gates might also be viable, because he is someone who is respected, who has proven himself to be a leader; he has the intelligence and the media savvy, and the connections to pull it off. The problem is that not everybody wants to run for president and face the intense scrutiny that comes with doing so.
Thus while the U.S. has figures who are similar to Ahn Chulsoo in some way, we have not seen them come forward and challenge the two party system, saying I can do what neither democrats nor republicans can do.

In the Korean case, voters are fed up with the ruling party, but the opposition party has not recovered from the 2007 defeat for the opposition. It seems too weak to be an effective opposition.

Emanuel Pastreich:
We had Ross Perot run for president in 1992 of course, what happened in that case? Was the US not ready for it?

Gregg Brazinsky:
In the case of Ross Perot in 1992, Perot was doing well, but he dropped out of the race and then came back. He did get a lot ofvotes in the end, but he was not in a strong position. If he had stuck with the election from the beginning, he could have had a better chance. His decision to drop out of the race and then enter it again at the last moment damaged his chances significantly.

Emanuel Pastreich:
And is this desire for an outsider in government a universal one? Do we that demand now everywhere in the world?

Gregg Brazinsky:
I am not sure it is a trend globally, rather a manifestation of a disgust with politics and a feeling of facing limited political options. That mood, more than anything else, makes it possible for someone to come in from the outside and have more legitimacy than insiders. Enough people must be fed up with the system that they will take a risk on an unknown.

Right now, neither Obama nor Romney are popular candidates. Neither of the two candidates are well-liked or deeply respected. So there is a real opportunity for a third voice, but so far people still fall back on the existing party structures.

Emanuel Pastreich:
In the case of Roh, he was able to bring along a large group from the democratic party 민주당 and form the 우리당 Uri party almost overnight. That could not happen in America—or in Japan, China or just about any other country.

Gregg Brazinsky:
That is something unique about contemporary Korea that is more difficult to imagine in American politcs. In the US the parties have changed in their political orientations in many respects, but the Democrats and Republicans have dominated American politics since 1860. That is more than 150 years—Korea was still Choson back then and governed by the Yi Dynasty.

Emanuel Pastreich:
The Democrats and the Republicans use the same name, but they have switched their role.

Gregg Brazinsky:
Yes, the Republicans were the progressive party back in the 19th century, leading the fight against slavery in the United States. But after the New Deal the Republicans have increasingly been defined by their conservatism on social issues.
Moreover, in Korea, the game is not just about loyalty to a party, but rather about loyalty to an individual and the vision that person embodies. So if one person says, I am going to break away and form my own party it is possible to do because loyalty is as much to people as it is to party. It is a significant difference in political culture between the US and Korea, loyalty to party, rather than to individual, is powerful in the US.

That is not to say the political system in Korea is better or worse than that in the US, they are different in nature.

Emanuel Pastreich:
Let us talk about the specific differences between the systems in Korea and the US.

Gregg Brazinsky:
In the United States, you need connections within the Democratic or Republican Party to run for office. You must buy into the system as a whole. Of course you may have a mentor and close friend within the Democratic or Republican party, but loyalty for the politician lies with the party. Hillary Clinton lost to Barak Obama in what was an extremely bitter primary campaign where the stakes were quite high. But at the end of the 2008 election, Hillary and Bill Clinton were out there campaigning for Obama with enthusiasm. For them, the political party stood for certain ideals, for a world view and for an approach to government. The campaign for the nomination in the Democratic Party was divisive and bitter, but when it came to the general election, Bill and Hillary had come to come back into the fold for the sake of the party.
In South Korea there are parties with long-term institutions, but those parties are less about ideals, instead the party coalesces around an individual and his vision. So it is possible to break away from parties and also to start them, or rename them, more easily.

Emanuel Pastreich:
In the case of Ahn Chulsoo, his strategy for campaigning for president seems truly unique. He strategically puts off declaring presidency to the last moment. At the moment most politicians would declare their candidacy, we find that instead he published a popular book articulating his ideas. He tries to position himself through this book as something of a thinker, a feeling accessible person. It really is not a book about politics at all, but it is intended to be a political statement.

Gregg Brazinsky:
So for an American, his behavior is a bit hard to read, and a bit mysterious. I think he is being extremely coy about whether he will or will not run. One fact is that once he declares he is a candidate, the ruling party will attack. They are ready to take him on full force.
Ahn’s emergence, his approach to politics has avoided the standard path of rallies, talks, interviews with the political kingpins. Ahn is well educated, he is a professor at Seoul National Universitywith experience as a successful entrepreneur, all these features are impressive for Koreans. But he just seems more accessible, more open and relaxed than professional politicians.

Emanuel Pastreich:
It is amazing to me just how un-political Ahn is in his activities. He is not at all ready as a personality to kiss babies and whip up an audience into great enthusiasm, or shake a thousand hands in a massive crowd. He seems totally wrong as a traditional politician. And he also does not like to talk much. Moreover, there seems to be enthusiasm for him for exactly that reason. I cannot think of anyone like him in the US.

Gregg Brazinsky:
But for that matter, Park Geunhye also does not like to talk all that much either. We are seeing a move away from the previous generation of politics. Kim Daejung and Kim Youngsam were politicians to the core. They knew how to make the speech and get the crowd excited. Part of Ahn’s appeal is that he just does not seem political. To some degree that may be Park Geunhye’s appeal as well.

Emanuel Pastreich:
People are tired of those slick politicians. That lack of polish is interpreted in Korea as accessibility, as honesty in Ahn. Perhaps to a degree that would be difficult in the United States.

Gregg Brazinsky:
Ahn can take this approach to deciding to run because the requirements in Korea are different. In the case of the United States you need an enormous budget to pay for TV ads for publicity for the entire campaign on a massive scale. Now up to one billion dollars in the US to run for president. There is not that sort of overhead expenses in Korea and it is possible to start a campaign up in a short amount of time. There are also more regulations in Korea that keep political parties from using such large amounts of money to influence the election through advertising. You cannot run political ads at all in Korea.
In Korea there is a smaller audience to appeal to. Only 50 million Koreans after all. It is a smaller territory and more homogenous.
Emanuel Pastreich:
Interestingly, tthe newspapers in Korea are already treating Ahn as a candidate, comparing him constantly with Park Geunhye. He really seems to have no choice at this point.

Gregg Brazinsky:

Very true, and they are even conducting polls about Ahn’s popularity relative to Park Geunhye. The media has created a virtual reality in which he has become the candidate. So if Ahn does not run, it may be too late for other candidates to build up the following necessary to win. The situation is far from easy at this point. Because of the way the media has slanted to Ahn

Ultimately, it would be difficult for someone from Ahn’s background to govern in several key respects. But easier in Korea than in the United States. Wildrow Wilson was president of Princeton, but otherwise professors do not become presidents, and rarely cabinet members, in the United States.

Emanuel Pastreich:
So let us talk about political parties. Seems like this situation is only possible because of the nature of political parties in Korea. There appears to be something going on here that we do not see in the United States.

Gregg Brazinsky:

In Korea you have a constantly shifting set of political alliances. Back in 1997, Kim Daejung was in a close contest with Lee Huichang. So Kim turns for support to Kim Jongpil for his political advantage. Kim Jongpil was his long-time political rival, not within the party but between parties. That was a move that is absolutely impossible in the United States where our culture is less flexible. Imagine George W. Bush allying with Hillary Clinton or one of her close allies for a political campaign? In the United States that would be impossible.

Emanuel Pastreich:
The Clinton family and the Bush family have their own distinct patronage networks in Washington D.C. in government and industry. I think it would be impossible to make that sort of a move even if they wanted to do so.

Gregg Brazinsky:
In the US the political system is quite established and consistent. In Korea, parties are constantly splitting and reforming. Parties collapse, are renamed and move in new directions.

In the US there is considerable discipline in the political parties and partisanship on parties is very strong. It is hard, and getting harder, to make deals between parties, or between rival politicians in rival parties. In the debate about the FTA with the US, there was a breakdown along party lines in Korea, but not anything like the split you will find the United States.
Emanuel Pastreich:

You mentioned that the administrative system might be different.
Gregg Brazinsky:
I think one important difference is that in the U.S. a president can be reelected so during the first term in office they have to keep a much closer eye on how their policies are received by the electorate. This is an important difference in how the two countries operate politically. Another difference is that the U.S. has a bicameral as opposed to a unicameral system in South Korea.

Emanuel Pastreich:
There are two significant differences between the US and Korea. One is how the 국회 is different from the US congress in is laws and its functions. But the even more important difference is the age of the United States. The United States is institutionally just a lot older than Korea. Of course the culture back to Tankun of Korea is older than the United States, but the institutions for governance in the United States are much, much older. The United States has been running according to this constitution since 1787 and current parties for over 150 years.
Gregg Brazinsky:
There are real differences between US and other democracies because of the age of our system. Korea has come very far in a very short period of time. In the American case, even before it was a country, the US was made up of people who fled from the old world and brought with them an idea of what a democracy would be and how they would run their small communities. We were experimenting with new governance in the 17th century.There were waves of dissident groups from Europe who, inspired by liberal political ideals, fled to the United States to seek greater freedom. That was not the case for Korea. In Korea there was a monarchic dynasty until 1910 and Korea was run under Japanese colonialism until 1945. Then new democratic institutions were, in some ways, imposed upon South Korea by the United States. But these institutions did not function the way they should have. The United States ultimately had to tolerate an authoritarian ally because it feared that otherwise, South Korea would be taken over by the Communists.

I argue that it would have been difficult to establish a functional liberal democracy in Korea in 1945. The roots of democratic process were shallow and there was much that was unprecedented in Korea. Koreans simply did not have the habits or the understanding of democratic government to make it a reality.
Of course some Americans disagree with me on this point. Some say that the US used Korea’s so-called “immaturity” as an excuse to support a military government. I think that if you look at history, post-colonial societies, nations after civil wars, or nations that gain independence suddenly, you will observe that when they try to set up democracies right away, the success rate is not high. Before you can have a functional democracy, citizens have to understand what their responsibilities in a democracy are, they have to develop new habits and practices in decision making.
In the American case, when people started crossing the Atlantic setting up communities in the 17th century, many saw these communities as full-fledged democratic communities. But these colonies were initially very small in scale. That effort in the US was nothing like Korea, nothing like taking a whole country and saying, “Let’s set up a democracy.” The United States had been a democracy longer, even before it was a country. At the local level it was democratic, even if not all people could participate.
That is not to say that democracy in America has been perfect. If you look carefully at US history, there are some things to be ashamed of. For many people, African Americans and Native Americans, America was not a democratic country at all. So it took the United States a long time to improve and perfect its democratic institutions and it is still an ongoing process. What South Korea has done that is remarkable is creating such a vibrant democracy in such a short period of time.

Emanuel Pastreich:
We could say that Korean democracy is less mature, institutionally less mature, that Koreans have less sophistication in politics. And the result is greater corruption and more improper activity in politics. That might be true. At the same time, there are those who would argue the opposite, that Korea is more vibrant, more vibrant as a democracy—perhaps because the struggle for democracy is more recent for Koreans.

Gregg Brazinsky:
The politics of Korea and the US are different. I don’t think we can say that one is better than the other. Each has its strengths. What we can say about Korea that is distinctive is the role of NGOs and watchdog groups that play a very important role in Korean politics. In the US we have political action committees, but overall they are clearly under the influence of a particular party. They are not really objective, their impact is reduced. Korea has a strong NGO movement to keep politics in check.

Emanuel Pastreich:
There is also a difference in the formation of the political economy of the two economies. We can talk about about political parties, industry and bureaucrats as players in the political arena in Korea. The big difference is the role of bureaucrats. People working in government agencies and their leaders, have much more power and influence in Korea than in the United States. In the United States, career bureaucrats occasionally rise to significant roles, but in general it is not a fast track and appeal of that track is very low.

Gregg Brazinsky:

Part of the legacy in Korea is of ministries that built the economy, proposing and implementing five year plans. The Ministry of Economic Planning and the Ministry of Finance played a central role in Korea’s rapid economic development. They made up policy and implemented it. The ideal of a professional impartial bureaucrat has great power in Korea and impacts how government and politics is perceived.
Obviously there are plenty of people working for the US government as well, but what they can do in their departments is more limited. When politicians are elected they can appoint a whole new bunch of people and then shift what a government agency does to a large extent.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Back in the 1960s, something like forty percent of the graduating class of Harvard Law School went to work for government. But today the number is more like 4% or less. Graduates of Harvard Law School may end up working in the government eventually, but they would first go into business where they can make money, pay off student loans and build up business and political connections. Those elites do not go directly in the Department of Commerce and start climbing the ladder.

Gregg Brazinsky:
I remember vividly how young people in Korea study for years to become a lawyer or a civil servant. It is a very different world one in which civil service is a viable, workable job for people with good credentials.
Moreover, schools have become so expensive in the United States that working for the government is not really an option for graduates. If you go to Harvard Law, or even Harvard College, you cannot afford to work for the government.
Emanuel Pastreich:
That is good point.

Gregg Brazinsky:
US higher education is so expensive that it limits the ability of people to work in government. Simply it is not lucrative for graduates. This paradox of education has a real impact in America. There are some Americans, however, who say, I will pay my debt and then work in government.

Emanuel Pastreich:
So you and I are professors and we know what it is like to try to work on policy issues from the perspective of, the position of, a professor. What can a professor (which is what Ahn is seen as in Korea today) do in American politics?

Gregg Brazinsky:
There was once a large number of scholars brought into the government under Franklin Roosevelt, or especially under John F. Kennedy. In the Kennedy administration we saw a government run by Walt Whitman Rostow, Arthur Slessinger, Lucian Pye—the best and the brightest from academia. There are occasionally some who play a role, although not a top role. We do not have new figures like Henry Kissinger, or like Zbigniew Brzezinski, scholarly figures who play a central role in government. That was two generations ago.

The only example would be Condoleezza Rice during the George W. Bush administration.

Emanuel Pastreich:
Condoleezza Rice reached that position because of her extensive business connections, her work with Chevron, her connections outside of academics.

Gregg Brazinsky:
Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski established themselves first and foremost as excellent scholars in their field long before they were appointed to any position. That was a different age. In Korea there are far more academics appointed to high positions which is quite healthy. Academics are called on for public service frequently in Korea.

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